On eve of BCS championship, a call for the NCAA to reform college football

Sally Jenkins
Columnist February 26, 2011

The NCAA’s attitude toward college football is like the scene in “Apollo 13,” when astronaut Jim Lovell’s wife Marilyn takes in the damage after the moon-shot party. “I can’t deal with cleaning up,” she says. “Let’s sell the house.”

One of the more disillusioning seasons in memory will wrap up with what should rightly be called the BS Bowl, and whether the NCAA knows it or not, it faces a huge crisis of public confidence. People are sick of players on the take who spend about as much time in class as they do at a Gas-N-Sip, and NCAA pipe tampers who harbor them with morally casual attitudes dressed up in bow ties. The argument university presidents use to avoid personal responsibility is that corruption in the game is an intractable problem beyond the capacity of individuals to solve it. It’s too big to clean up. So they just sell the house.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

But that’s an easy out. There are a half-dozen reforms that would restore some honor and clean purpose to the sport tomorrow, if only school administrators would find the backbone. It’s not that no one knows what to do. They just lack the will to do it.

“I don’t buy this notion that it’s beyond me,” says Tulane President Scott Cowen. “I don’t buy this notion that I can do nothing to influence it. Individual presidents have to bear responsibility for their own institution. We can’t simply say, ‘It’s too much bigger than me and it’s somebody else’s problem.’ That’s passing the buck.”

A reform movement should start with the understanding that while NCAA division I-A football isn’t exactly studies in ancient Cypriot texts, nevertheless it has genuine educational value. It’s as important as math or music or poetry in helping to open students’ potential. It belongs on campus and is worth saving. It’s not like it would take unconventional weapons and millions of casualties.

Here are the six steps:

l One: Cut the number of football scholarships from 85 to 70. Athletic department budgets have become insupportably high, thanks largely to the cost of football, and the red ink has led presidents and athletic directors to make terrible decisions in pursuit of bowl money. Ohio State’s sports budget is an unseemly $110 million. A reasonable downsizing of football programs will restore the right, sane, priorities.

Nearly 80 percent of major athletic programs lose money, to the tune of an average of $9.9 million annually. At 44 percent of the institutions playing major college football, revenues did not cover the cost of the team. About $1.8 billion in student fees and university funds went to covering the gaps in 2009-10, according to a USA Today study.

Football scholarships are the second-most expensive item in any athletic department, with a median cost of $5.8 million annually. Then there are the indirect costs like team travel, which runs at around $2.5 million annually. Allowing a football team 85 scholarships means three scholarships per position. No other sport has such luxury. Quit feeding the beast. If an NFL team can play 16 games with 53 players, a college team will be fine with 70 players. Coaches who protest those limitations can do what coaches in so many non-revenue sports do: cultivate non-scholarship athletes. What would the harm be if the kick coverage and return teams were comprised of some people who, you know, actually go to their schools?

l Two: Cap the salaries of coaches, and suspend them if they get caught cheating. Coaches’ salaries are the single biggest expense putting schools in the red. Since 2006, average pay for head football coaches has increased 46 percent. In December 2009 the University of Texas gave football Coach Mack Brown a 66 percent raise to $5.1 million a year — at the same time a major budget crisis forced layoffs and cuts in curriculum. “We need some rationalization of what we’re paying coaches,” Cowen said. “I believe in the free market system, but this is beyond what I think is appropriate and reasonable for higher education.”

Also, pass a two-strike rule for illegal recruiters. First strike earns a suspension. Second strike, you surrender any claim to being an educator. You should be unemployable in the collegiate game.

l Three: Make freshmen ineligible. By passing this rule the NCAA would declare that it puts education ahead of business, and is not just pursuing the NFL and NBA cultures. It would restore the right academic priority, and serve as a disincentive in illegal recruiting and high school transcript frauds. Also, the number of hours devoted to practice, weights, film, etc. should be lowered.

l Four: Reduce the regular season from 12 games to 10 games. It’s in the best interest of the players physically and academically, it will help downsize the sport to more manageable cost levels, and it will make a playoff feasible, without overextending the top teams.

The fiscal crack addicts who’ve run up deficits in athletic departments will claim they need the revenue of those extra games. Don’t believe them — that’s a plea of bad athletic directors who can’t manage money. According to the Knight Commission, since the 12th football game was added in the 2006 season, “only one additional football program has generated positive net revenue.”

l Five: Abolish the Bowl Championship Series. It’s an unprincipled and unfair system that brings out the worst in those who compete in it. It sends the message to athletes that what counts is not the game, “but how you game the system,” says Alan Fishel, an attorney from Arent Fox who represents Boise State.

College football is the only sport that does not have a valid championship, because conference commissioners seized control of the postseason in order to hoard the bowl money to offset their deficits. The NCAA needs to reclaims its authority. “It’s beginning to taint everything, in all of athletics,” Cowen says. “That particular system has co-opted all of intercollegiate athletics, and really led the train in the wrong direction.”

l Six: Toughen punishments on players who accept money, and agents who offer it to them. Let’s all quit apologizing for the poor athlete. Deterrence works. “We can’t keep placing the blame on the NCAA and saying life’s unfair,” Southern Cal Athletic Director Pat Haden says. “The student athletes have to do the right thing, and they know what’s right in these circumstances.”

Haden has the unenviable job of trying to rebuild a “culture of compliance” after the Reggie Bush scandal. But why should Haden carry the burden for the fact that Bush accepted $290,000 from an agent, an act that stigmatized the university and could cost it millions? “We’re the poster child, if you will,” Haden says ruefully.

The NCAA should throw its lobbying weight behind a national law to send rogue agents to jail, and it should explore means to force players who take cash benefits against NCAA rules to repay their scholarships, and serve NFL suspensions. If steroids lead to a ban, why shouldn’t this? In the meantime, USC should sue Bush for damages. “If you want to stop what’s going on, suggest that Reggie Bush write a check to the school for what he cost them,” said an attorney who didn’t wish to be named. “Rather than saying, ‘There’s cheating and we can’t do anything about it.’ When Bush does what he does, he has to take a hit of some kind.”

All of these proposed reforms have one thing in common. They need strong-minded administrators willing to enact them. So far, the NCAA has been too willing to accept individual helplessness and collective failure.

jenkinss@washpost.com

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